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Brown dwarfs do form like stars

...astronomers have uncovered strong evidence that brown dwarfs – the dividing line between stars and planets – form like stars...

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Hubble’s snow globe
of stars a shaken snow globe of sparkling snow flakes frozen in time, Hubble has captured an instantaneous glimpse of the thousands of glittering stars moving about the globular cluster M13...

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Mars Science Laboratory delayed for two years

...the launch of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory has slipped to 2011, two years after the original schedule, in order to allow further hardware testing to ensure a maximum science return...

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Video archive

STS-120 day 2 highlights

Flight Day 2 of Discovery's mission focused on heat shield inspections. This movie shows the day's highlights.


STS-120 day 1 highlights

The highlights from shuttle Discovery's launch day are packaged into this movie.


STS-118: Highlights

The STS-118 crew, including Barbara Morgan, narrates its mission highlights film and answers questions in this post-flight presentation.

 Full presentation
 Mission film

STS-120: Rollout to pad

Space shuttle Discovery rolls out of the Vehicle Assembly Building and travels to launch pad 39A for its STS-120 mission.


Dawn leaves Earth

NASA's Dawn space probe launches aboard a Delta 2-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral to explore two worlds in the asteroid belt.

 Full coverage

Dawn: Launch preview

These briefings preview the launch and science objectives of NASA's Dawn asteroid orbiter.

 Launch | Science

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UK Moon mission gets

green light

Posted: 08 December, 2008

The UK-led MoonLITE mission that will see penetrator darts embedded into the lunar surface has been given the go ahead by the government to enter into an in-depth ‘Phase-A’ study.

The MoonLITE (Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment) mission aims to place a satellite in orbit around the Moon and deploy four penetrators that will deliver scientific instruments to below the lunar surface. Each penetrator will contain a drill, sensors, accelerometers, a seismometer and mass spectrometer and offers the potential to establish the first network of geophysical instruments to probe the interior structure of the Moon in greater detail than ever before achieved. The penetrators would also deliver information on the strength and frequency of moonquakes and the thickness of the crust and core. The mission might also determine whether organic material or water is present in the polar regions, which would be of central importance in the planning of future human missions to the Moon. The satellite orbiter would act as a telecommunications station between the surface network and the Earth, relaying information to the Earth during the penetrators' proposed one year life expectancy.

MoonLITE will deploy four penetrators across the surface of the Moon in order to establish a geophysical network to probe the lunar interior. Image: SSTL.

Dr Ian Crawford from the School of Earth Sciences at Birkbeck College is the Project Scientist for MoonLITE. Commenting on the government announcement made at the end of last week he says, “this is excellent news for the MoonLITE project, and the development of lunar science in the UK. It is especially pleasing that the government recognises the value of space missions of this kind for the advancement of knowledge, the development of new technologies, and the inspiration of young people to take an interest in science and engineering.”

Birkbeck scientists Dr Katherine Joy and Dr Vincent Tong are also involved in the MoonLITE project. “MoonLITE provides an excellent opportunity for the UK to become directly involved with the global effort to partake in the renewed exploration of the Moon,” says Joy.

The mission must now meet the demands of the Phase A study before any decision to proceed with building or launching the spacecraft will commence. The development schedule, mission costs, and any possible risks will be assessed by industry and academia to determine the feasibility of the project. In June, the mission scientists demonstrated the feasibility of impacting penetrators at over 1,000 kilometres per hour into sand, in a full-scale mock-up of the proposed lunar impacts (read our report here). The penetrators contained electronics similar to those that would fly on the proposed mission, which remained operational throughout and after impact. The team must now continue with similar testing as well as perform detailed computer simulations to further test the response of the penetrators and their payload to a variety of different impact scenarios.

Scientists have already demonstrated that penetrators containing sensitive electronics could survive an impact similar to that envisaged by the MoonLITE mission. Images: MSSL/UCL. Experiment conducted at the QinetiQ facility at Pendine. Click here for video.

MoonLITE emerged as a concept from a 2006 study for low cost robotic lunar exploration options, and if selected at the end of 2009, the mission would likely be scheduled for a 2014 launch date. NASA is also supporting the study in order to establish its potential contribution to the science and technology of the mission.

In addition to Birkbeck College, the UK Penetrator Consortium, which will develop the penetrator technology, includes members from UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) and Department of Earth Sciences, Imperial College London, the Open University, Leicester University, Surrey University and QinetiQ Ltd. The consortium is coordinated by Professor Alan Smith at MSSL.